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Fantasy vs. Reality in Palestine-Israel

Heading for Annapolis

by KATHLEEN And BILL CHRISTISON

In Jerusalem.

The "Annapolis establishment," as it might be called — those in Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. who have a vested interest in making the Annapolis summit look like producing something meaningful — engaged in a strangely unreal burst of enthusiasm as the conference neared, predicting impossible successes and purporting to see a new level of U.S. determination to forge some kind of peace. Most Palestinians, intensely skeptical, know better.

In a haze of unreality, headlines in Ha’aretz on Sunday, November 25, crowed about the supposed triumphant return of the United States to leadership of the Middle East and the world for having successfully arranged the summit after years of setbacks in the Middle East. A leading, usually realistic Ha’aretz correspondent declared that the U.S. is "back as a leader in the Middle East" and will put out the message at Annapolis that "when the U.S. calls, the world sides with it." This is, of course, seen as a great boost to Israel’s interests. Other headlines saw a "victory" (for Israel and the U.S.) in the Arab leaders’ decision to attend and give their imprimatur to the summit, and predicted that these developments represent a "definite blow" weakening Hamas.

Disconcertingly, Palestinians connected to the Palestinian Authority talk in similar, if somewhat less exaggerated, terms about the prospects for real progress from Annapolis and appear to agree with one key Israeli commentator who professed to believe that the Bush administration is finally ready to "stick its neck out" to forge a deal for a two-state peace agreement. These establishment Palestinians, in the assessment of one serious Palestinian analyst, are almost desperate for some kind of American involvement, as the only hope of ever overcoming Israeli intransigence and moving toward a peace agreement. They believe that, because the U.S. has now become engaged and supports Mahmoud Abbas, this will bring at least a credible peace process, and they operate on the naïve assumption that if you get a peace process, you’ll get peace.

But, back in real life, where Palestinians live with the grim daily realities of the occupation and the remembrance of two wasted decades of unproductive peacemaking efforts, any mention of Annapolis is greeted with cynicism and black humor. To the assertions of wishful thinkers in the establishment that Condoleezza Rice has a good understanding of the Palestinian position going into Annapolis, the Palestinian man in the street offers a short video on his mobile phone — a clip circulating so widely that it is difficult to find anyone who has not seen it — showing a flirtatious Rice with bouncy curls and swinging hips, singing to a line-up of "moderate" Arab leaders seated in front of her (the ones known to be more or less in the U.S. pocket) that they are "good boys" for having done the U.S. bidding.

The so-called "street" in Palestine — a term, it is important to know, that covers a wide spectrum of ordinary, but very political, very well informed people — is wise to the true dynamics of this and past "peace processes": to Israel’s evasions and endless delays, to the U.S. refusal ever to call Israel out on these deceptions, and to the total U.S. failure to fathom or even care about the political realities. Most Palestinians not invested by the system or captivated by wishful thinking recognize quite clearly that negotiations U.S.-style and Israeli-style are essentially all process with no content — little more than a means of diverting attention from the occupation and shielding Israel from pressure while it proceeds with the job of swallowing Palestinian territories.

While there is little here on the ground in Palestine on which to base any optimism and many are talking forthrightly about the defeat of Palestine and an Israeli-U.S. victory, one does get the sense that most Palestinians are not giving in to defeat and will continue to resist where possible. While Palestine’s establishment politicians fly off to Annapolis, Palestine’s grassroots leaders are organizing boycott-divestment-sanctions campaigns. Approximately 500 people attended a BDS conference in Ramallah last week. They are mobilizing protest campaigns against the separation wall and against Annapolis itself. Hamas, the actor in this "peace process" that everyone is studiously trying to ignore, organized a large anti-Annapolis rally in Gaza on Sunday, and a grassroots protest is planned for Tuesday in Ramallah, to coincide with Annapolis’ opening. They talk about thawabit, unchangeable principles — meaning a refusal to give in on positions that are the very essence of the Palestinian struggle. One young activist, after an evening spent talking about grassroots resistance and about the need to remain firm — "unchangeable" — on fundamental issues such as the right of return, came back to a subject we thought we had exhausted and said he wanted to say one more thing about the importance to Palestinians of the right of return: you invalidate the entire Palestinian cause, he said, if you give up this right. It would take the center away from the Palestinian cause and the entire Palestinian experience. It will not be abandoned.

One gets the sense that Palestinians will not allow anyone to put anything over on them — not their own establishment or Israel or the U.S. No Palestinian victory is on the horizon, by any means, but this spirit of resistance may prevent the establishment at Annapolis from surrendering basic rights.

Israeli correspondent Gideon Levy touched on the essence of the conflict in a commentary in Ha’aretz that was completely at odds with Sunday’s wishful front-page headlines and indeed with the very basis of the Annapolis summit. Addressing underlying Israeli worries that Israel will be pressed to make costly concessions, Levy noted that Israel is in fact not being asked to "give" anything to the Palestinians but only "to return their stolen land and restore their trampled self-respect, along with their fundamental human rights and humanity." This, he says, is "the primary core issue," but no one talks about this anymore; justice "has deliberately been erased from all negotiations."

Levy’s realization is an extremely important element in understanding just what is wrong with Annapolis, as with all U.S. peacemaking going back to well before the Bush administration’s current efforts. Justice for Palestinians has never been part of the equation, which is why no peace effort has ever succeeded and why Annapolis will also sooner or later collapse. Levy wonders, "Does Israel have the moral right to continue the occupation?" and points out that the world, even the Palestinian leadership, and particularly the Israelis who "bear the guilt," have never asked this core question.

Levy speaks only about 40 years of occupation, perhaps not realizing that, when this question is answered, the inevitable next question is, Does Israel have the moral right to continue in possession of the homes and land of Palestinians expelled and dispossessed in 1948? No true peace will ever be possible unless both questions are dealt with.

Perhaps Levy expresses the real hope for the future: that there are Israelis who have their priorities straight — who recognize, as he says, that the commonly accepted core issues are secondary to the "primary core issue" of justice — and who know that ultimately the grave injustice that Israel has done to the Palestinians cannot continue.

Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at kathy.bill.christison@comcast.net.

Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.

They can be reached at kathy.bill.christison@comcast.net.